Scientists, not politicians

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    IT was one of the stupidest things I ever heard. In the aftermath of Taal volcano’s phreatic (steam-driven) explosion, questions about the lack of warning given by Phivolcs were raised by the likeliest of suspects: politicians. They asked why no warning was given about the explosion. The answer is simple: like earthquakes, no one can predict volcanic eruptions. Repeat after me: no one can predict volcanic eruptions.

    While it is true that unlike earthquakes, scientists monitoring active volcanoes can detect increased volcanic activity, and increase public warnings accordingly. But they can’t say exactly when, or for certain, when a volcano will choose to erupt. Things just don’t work out that way. It seems, however, that Taal was more restive than usual beginning December, which should have necessitated a closer watch from our government officials.

    Which brings to mind this question: who was alive, alert, and awake at the building over the Pasig river when Phivolcs gave its reports? Those who have worked in the presidential office could set their watches by the Phivolcs and PAGASA daily reports: they are faxed every morning at eight on the dot. Every report contains details about activity in the areas they are monitoring, sent to every office that needs to know about the latest developments. Either Phivolcs wasn’t doing its job, or someone else on the other end simply wasn’t paying attention. I doubt that the former was the case.

    If our politicians must know, working in the government science bureaus is one of the most thankless jobs. Like most low to mid-level positions, our scientists are paid very little yet they work under the harshest of conditions, relied upon by millions of Filipinos to deliver accurate information in the most stressful of situations. Sadly, while government budget runs on trillions of pesos, very little is allocated to our science offices. Their budget for equipment is also appalling, with your yearly national expenditure programs as evidence.

    While those in Phivolcs and PAGASA are not exempt from scrutiny, politicians (especially legislators) should check themselves and ask what kind of budgetary support they provided to the science bureaus to enable them to do their jobs well. Did you vote to give them more budget for personnel and plantilla (regular) positions? Did you vote to increase the budget for their equipment and capital outlay? Did you file a bill to institutionalize additional benefits for them? If not, then sit down, Susan. We don’t need your grandstanding now.

    Another possibly disastrous example of politicians setting policy in times of disaster: opening Tagaytay establishments to business while Taal is on alert level 4. Yes, you read that right, dear millennials and fillennials: alert level 4, meaning an eruption is imminent.

    By all means, let’s encourage people to go back into a hazardous area when an eruption is imminent, and make life harder for our front-liners when something does go wrong. This is idiocy, pure and simple—one that could cost lives. If that isn’t reckless imprudence, I don’t know what is.

    While Phivolcs isn’t perfect, and could use more support in their communications with the public as pointed out recently on Twitter by former Tourism Secretary Mon Jimenez, I am happy to see that many of our younger, more social media savvy geologists are using different platforms to help laypeople understand scientific terms and explain jargon. Seeing how important communications is in times of disaster (yes, we should have learned our lesson from the problem with the phrase “storm surge” during super typhoon Yolanda) will serve as a constant reminder to the next generation of scientists on how to deal with non-science folk in the future. That in itself will already save lives.

    Let me end this week’s missive by expressing appreciation to all the CSOs and private groups that have stepped in to help those affected by the eruption. Tens of thousands have been evacuated and are in dire need of help, and there is still no certainty when they can go back to their homes. All your efforts, big and small, greatly help our fellow Pinoys.

    Please look up your favorite charity, be it the Philippine Red Cross or RockEd, and see what you can do to help. From Grab drivers taking a day off to deliver relief goods to bystanders wiping down ash-filled windshields, there is no shortage of inspiration from ordinary Filipinos who are once again rising up to the call of the times.